Wednesday, April 13

The changing role of the American missionary

While the mission has not changed, missions has. The task is still to go, make disciples of the nations, baptize, and teach. But what is the role of the American missionary in all of this?

It used to be missionaries went to foreign countries and did exactly what the Great Commission says. Preaching, teaching, caring for the needy, and planting churches was what missionaries did. Today we are find ourselves in more catalytic roles trying to mobilize the Church in Ecuador to take on these responsibilities in their own Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and nations of the world.

About the time my wife and I came on the missionary scene in 1987, Ecuador mission work was heavily involved in developing the churches and ministries started by pioneer missionaries like my mom and dad. They plowed the fields and were part of planting the first Gospel seeds in many parts of this land.

After thirty years of pioneer-type work, the need arose for developing the work started by these first generation missionaries. Upon our arrival there were already missionary specialists in music, education, agriculture, seminary profs, student workers, bookstore managers, as well as what were known as "general field evangelists" serving in the work. Church development was at its height in the late 80's.

Over the past 25 years we have seen dramatic changes in the roles we have served under the umbrella of "missionary." When we first arrived in Ecuador our role was to serve as a...

-Mass Media Consultant. I was the Executive Director of the Media Department of the Ecuador Baptist Convention. We used radio, TV, and print media to generate evangelistic contacts for the churches. Over a period of years we worked closely with local churches to follow-up contacts and try to get them into existing churches.

-While continuing the media efforts, I was asked to serve as Music Minister for the largest Baptist church in the country. Choir rehearsals, worship services, staff meetings, and Christmas/Easter pageants became a big part of our week, as well as staying on top of the media production and follow-up.

-When the Ecuador Baptist Convention decided for economical reasons to down-size and focus only on a few key ministries, media was cut out of the organizational structure. The media role evolved into a telephone counseling ministry. At its pinnacle, we were in contact with 60,000+ seekers every month through the various levels of ministry.

-In 1997 the IMB's "New Directions" changed everything. We were asked to exit ASAP everything we had been doing to date. Almost overnight we found ourselves trying to figure out how to make Church Planting Movements happen in Ecuador. I was now wearing the hat of a "Church Planting Catalyst."

-Though many of us didn't know a thing about church planting, and had never spent a day of our lives in a house church, we soon found ourselves training others how to plant reproducing house churches.

-From 1997-2010 we went through several job titles and descriptions:
  • Ecuador Mega-City Team Leader,
  • Team Leader for Guayaquil Mestizos,
  • Team Leader for Guayas Mestizos,
  • Strategy Coordinator for Guayas, and finally
  • Team Leader for the Coast and Lowlands of Ecuador.
In all of these roles, training nationals to plant simple/organic house churches has been at the heart of everything we have done the past dozen years.

-Now we are trying to figure out what it means to be an Affinity Mobilizer for Ecuador. Attached to this are other newly created responsibilities of being a Global Mobilizer. For those needing a glossary for what all these terms refer to, I completely understand! Basically, the task of an AM is to finish the job of reaching Ecuador for Christ. To do this we must partner, empower, mobilize, and use every resource available. The Global aspects involve mobilizing Ecuadorian missionaries to the nations along with all that this implies.

What I sense is most needed is not more American missionaries being assigned to Ecuador, but rather a needed shift in the roles existing missionaries play.

We need to see ourselves more in apostolic roles of encouragers, enablers, equippers, trainers, motivators, connectors, and coordinators. All these roles are mobilization roles--seeking to mobilize God's people to finish the task.

There will always be room for the first generation apostolic church planter. These are the ones who goes into unreached/under-reached territory to proclaim the Gospel, make disciples, and leave multiplying NT ekklesias. I am constantly looking for those who would be willing to partner with us. There is plenty of work remaining with literally hundreds of unreached communities, towns, and cities scattered all over this country.

However, in the later stages of a ripe harvest field (like Ecuador) I believe missionaries best serve by helping the church by assisting them to bring in the harvest. This entails helping the church:
  • understanding what remains to be done,
  • identifying where the Gospel needs to be preached (pockets of lostness),
  • how to accomplish the task (strategy),
  • making available the needed tools and training,
  • coordinating the hundreds of mobilized laborers to bring in the harvest.

Another way of understanding this role change is to explain it this way: I can feel great about spending 30-40 hours a week directly engaged in proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples, baptizing 15-20 and hopefully planting 1-2 churches in a year's time...


I can spend that same time modeling, training, mobilizing several hundred others to do the same things, and at the end of the year see the Kingdom grow by dozens of churches and hundreds of baptisms and scores of new disciples who are also equipped to going out and making even more disciples.

In the first role we are the primary actors on stage. Everyone sees us, needs us, and looks to us for direction. In the second we are behind the scenes and the ones "seen" are those we are coaching. The difference in the way we understand our apostolic/missionary role is between planting a church, and being an instrument in the Spirit's hands for dozens of churches to be planted all over the region.

What do you think? As usual, your thoughts and observations are welcome.


JamesBrett said...

i'm a missionary / development worker in tanzania, and we are using the model you suggest for church planting. however, we are (in the rural areas and villages) first generation church planters going to under-reached people groups.

without fear of offending me (pretty thick skin), i'm wanting to know why you feel first generation evangelists and church planters are better served by (or better serve with) the more traditional missionary role?

i see it as a great benefit that we're now seeking to make disciples and plant churches without taking leadership roles within those churches. it seems to me to be both more sustainable and more reproducible.

GuyMuse said...


Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts as a fellow M. I know many of us are dealing with these same questions.

I write from the perspective of a second generation missionary here in Ecuador. In comparision to other parts of the world, Ecuador is a harvest field. Evangelical work is highly developed here in comparision to other parts of the world (Tanzania?)

We have made our way over the past 60 years from 1) plowing the ground, 2) planting the Gospel seed, 3) watering that seed, 4) and now it is time to harvest the crop.

What I was trying to say is that more US M's are not what is needed, but mobilize the thousands of Ecuadorian "missionaries"--the church--to finish the task. A handful of US M's is nothing compared to thousands of local believers going out and making disciples/planting churches.

In many parts of the world, maybe Tanzania, the work is still in the infancy stages of plowing or planting. There is a great need for M's. Even here in Ecuador there are hundreds of overlooked "pockets of lostness" that need addressing. But are these best dealt with by sending US M's? Or are we better stewards by using existing M's to do whatever it takes to make sure those pockets of lostness are engaged?

Dave Johnson said...

I agree with you Guy. There are definitely two distinct roles for missionaries and we need to recognize that we can be hurting a church planting movement by staying too long in that first generation church planting mode.

BParsons said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BParsons said...

That is the best summation of the history of missions in the past thirty years that I have ever heard.

I am glad there are people who are flexible, responsible, and obedient to the Spirit as you and Linda have been.

We pray for you as we pray for the laborers for the harvest.

Anonymous said...


Greetings! The M task has been and always will be to make disciples of Jesus in places where there are little or no disciples and NT churches. Mobilizers that do not invest some regular time on the edge will become dull and ineffective. Front-liners (lock smiths) that do not mobilize will not see multiplication. The issue is not whether the North American M is in the forefront or in the background. The issue is whether the North American and Latin American M will make disciples or simple do ministry.

GuyMuse said...


Thanks for the insight. Yes, staying too long can be quite detrimental. But at the same time, pulling out too soon can leave behind nothing. I can share plenty of stories for both extremes.

GuyMuse said...


One of the advantages of having lived 36 years in Ecuador is having been around long enough to see many of these things take place. For example, I remember the "plowing phase" as a 6-yr child standing on the streets of Quito handing out tracts only to have them ripped up and thrown back in my face. It was hard ground and tough for anyone calling themselves a Christian.

50 years later, we are still here, and now are trying how to manage bringing in the harvest that was planted by so many faithful servants of the Lord over the past half century.

Thanks for the kind words and prayers. Keep up the Ten2b praying. We need laborers more than ever to bring in that prayed for harvest!

GuyMuse said...


You are very correct in saying The issue is whether the North American and Latin American M will make disciples or simple do ministry. This is where we find ourselves right now. There is a ton of ministry going on everywhere. But little vision, passion, or get-up-and-do-it for making disciples outside our own local boxes. We are trying to stress the need that we need to be engaged in not only our Jerusalem, but in Judea, Samaria, and ends of the earth. Some are beginning to "get it" but it is a huge challenge to mobilize the church to think beyond their own local needs.

Dave Johnson said...

I agree with you Guy. It takes a lot of wisdom to determine the best time to switch roles.

JamesBrett said...

@guy and @dave, i don't think we disagree. it's just that i'm trying to parse out the functions of the 1st and 2nd generation missionaries as spoken of here.

guy, i think my question for you is one for clarity. are you basically saying it's the sheer numbers of unreached which will determine whether we use the 1st generation model you talked about?

and dave, i agree that church planting movements can be harmed by staying to long in this 1st generation model of work. but what i'm asking is why is that 1st generation portion needed? is it possible we're hurting cpms by having it at all? why not go in with a more equipping role in the first place and stay out of leadership positions in churches, etc?

Dave Johnson said...

James, somehow the Gospel seed must be planted and basic truths taught through discileship. Paul never stayed a long time anywhere, but he dis stay long enough to disciple and see elders appointed. I would totally agree that in "reached" countries missionaries should be doing a lot more equipping and a lot less pastoring.

GuyMuse said...


No arguments from me, Dave! Thanks for stopping by and for the comments.

Dion said...

Once again, well said My friend! My wife and I are looking to do this in a new way as our denomination has asked us to help cast vision, train, and encourage the sending of missionaries from Nicaragua, Costa Rica y Ecuador to other parts of the world, for now especially Thailand. I'm sure I'll be in touch with you more as we get into this role. Especially when we are going to travel to Ecuador.

GuyMuse said...


How exciting about you guys taking on this responsibility for Nicaragua, CR, and Ecuador. We too are getting more and more into mobilizing roles. I truly believe Latin America is posed to be on the vanguard of sending M's to the nations. There is still a lot of waiting upon the Lord to hear and understand how all of this is supposed to work, but it is happening already before our very eyes!

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more!

Anonymous said...

Great explanation! All this is exciting, frustrating and challenging to us (M´s in Mexico). We have the vision of "church planting movements" in our heart. But are struggling to "cast it" to our leaders (new, mostly "traditional" ,cell church plant) who are used to the model of heavy missionary involvement in the "day to day" functions of the church. So much to think about and pray about!

GuyMuse said...

Anon. M in Mexico,

We have the same situation where we are as well. As the saying goes, "It is easier to give birth to a baby, than raise the dead!" When working with traditional church leaders, it is important to understand where they are coming from and the kinds of things they fear. Most realize changes need to be made, but aren't desperate enough yet to endure the consequences of change. For us, it is a process.